Europe in the Balance: An Introduction

From the Series: Europe in the Balance

Soon, nostalgia will be another name for Europe.
—Angela Carter, British novelist, in her review of John Berger’s Once Upon a Time in Europe, the Washington Post, 1989

We will have to accept a certain degree of legal immigration; that’s globalization. . . In the era of the smartphone, we cannot shut ourselves away. . . People know full well how we live in Europe.
—Angela Merkel, addressing a congress of IG Metall metalworkers’ union in Frankfurt, October 2015

Two Angelas, two provocative quotes about European life.

Although separated by twenty-six years, the above quotes both convey the fact that “progress” in the context of Europe is exceedingly difficult to analyze. Is it simply because, as Carter suggests, the continent is and always has been mired in a wistful longing for its past glories? Or rather, is it as Merkel suggests: When she expanded the German economy into other countries, built factories in them, and sold German products to their locals, she did not anticipate signaling to the people living amid violence and bloodshed that in Germany they could find stability and economic opportunity? At the crossroads of such sentiments is a persistent question that has haunted historians, social scientists, and journalists alike: What is Europe? If discourse in New York Timesheadlines is any measure, right now whatever “Europe” is, it is experiencing “crisis.” Over the last twelve months, 972 articles have proclaimed it so. The anthropologist’s role is to look behind those headlines, and when we do it becomes obvious that the definition of both terms is highly variable.

In 869 cases, the New York Times references Europein order to mean the European Union. In other instances, Europe refers to the countries outside the unified trade and monetary body of twenty-eight member countries—Switzerland and Norway are the most prominent outsiders that the Times writers favor.

Most often and most predictably, among headlines, the term crisis is directed at Brexit. However, it has also referred to the yellow vest movement in France; migration patterns, from citizens of African countries arriving in Greece to asylum seekers from Rwanda trapped in Libya hoping to reach Italian shores; the EU-wide threat of global recession; the International Monetary Fund’s Christine Lagarde being nominated as the first female president of the European Central Bank; and even Pope Francis’s visit to Bulgaria, during which he warned Catholics living in the poorest member state against turning their back on immigrants.

If the EU is indeed falling apart, what does that mean for the 508 million people living in it? Generalizations are impossible to make among the peoples of twenty-eight nations who, even in the best and most unified of times, participate in an incredible range of economies, histories, and relationships to “modernity.” That said, the writers in this series are concerned with the myriad of ways in which everyday life in the EU is being remade to accommodate the so-called new period of intense troubles.

From the beginning, the aim of this series has been to interrogate the effects of the moral panic surrounding the idea of a torn and tattered Europe, and especially what that idea means to people living within it.1 We are collectively interested in how media reports of crisis have begun to shape social life across the EU. If cultural change is viewed as a “crisis,” today one primarily of immigration, austerity, and eroding social services, what does that mean for the people whose lives are variously caught up in it? These essays suggest further fractioning, divergences not only of experiences but also of interpretation, that are often glossed in terms of right versus left politics.

Writers here take up questions about living, working, eating, and taking leisure on a continent routinely envisioned by outsiders (and by insiders as well, as Merkel points out) as offering “better” opportunities for the good life. For example: How does the experience of buying fast food change in towns with growing populations of halal observers? What does it mean that commercial drones helped shut down Gatwick airport over Christmas but then also interrupted the destruction of Notre Dame? How is it to enjoy a World Cup championship when the team itself represents the contentious history of colonialism? How do changing conditions in the production of ready-to-wear “fast fashion” affect generations of garment factory workers in Italian hillside villages? How do the circumstances of Brexit affect the growing disability rights’ advocacy movement in London? What might attendees of science fiction conventions predict about the future of Ireland’s economy?

Taken together, these eleven essays reveal a central conundrum that presents a new twist on the widely perceived progressiveness of “European modernity”: A perception that the crisis itself is overblown competes with a view suggesting that Europe’s crises not only exist but will grow and devour the rest of the West. While it is impossible to predict the effects of the Union’s sclerotic economic forecast and rising immigration, what the ethnographers here find aligns with what the Annales school of social historians long ago warned us to consider: Developments in European social life are perhaps best understood in terms of the slow-moving sweep of big changes that will only appear inevitable upon future reflection. Was modernity a false promise, or is the European Union losing its progressive edge?


1. By moral panic I refer to Stanley Cohen’s (2011, 9) conception: "Societies appear to be subject, every now and then, to periods of moral panic. A condition, episode, person or groups of persons emerges to become defined as a threat to societal values and interests; its nature is presented in a stylized and stereotypical fashion by the mass media; the moral barricades are manned by editors, bishops, politicians and other right-thinking people; socially accredited experts pronounce their diagnoses and solutions; ways of coping are evolved (or more often) resorted to; the condition then disappears, submerges or deteriorates and becomes more visible."


Cohen, Stanley. 2011. Folk Devils and Moral Panics: The Creation of the Mods and Rockers. New York: Routledge. Originally published in 1972.